The road to the republic

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Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day
By Michael Axworthy
Penguin Books £9.99 333 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.99

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran
By Hooman Majd
Doubleday $24.95 273 pages

The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule
By Fakhreddin Azimi
Harvard University Press £22.95, 479 pages

The Persians have had a bad press pretty much since the world became aware of them. Aeschylus (whose Persians of 472BC is the earliest surviving play) and his fellow classical Greek tragedians won many a pan-Hellenic Oscar by manufacturing an image of a cruel, effeminate and decadent despotism of the east, the better to build up Greek identity and cultural superiority. The great tragedians were the first and most accomplished demonisers of “the other”, as Edith Hall documented 20 years ago in Inventing the Barbarian. Rush Limbaugh and lesser “let’s-frighten-the-children” artists, with their reliance on pantomime villains such as Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s mercurial president, are the bathos of a long literary tradition.

As regime change in Washington revives the tantalising idea of some sort of rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and the American Republic – trapped in opposing trenches by the visceral animosities given free rein since the Khomeinist revolution of 30 years ago – it is important to remember that Iran is heir to a rich culture of enormous age, depth and resilience, with an extraordinary power both to assimilate and to radiate. These books help us do that.

Michael Axworthy’s Iran: Empire of the Mind is a beautifully distilled retelling of Iranian history that flashes with insight on every page. A writer and lecturer on contemporary Iran who formerly headed the Iran desk at the Foreign Office, he begins at the beginning and tells a very good story.

For those of us fixated on the Islamism of the theocrats who currently run Iran, it is instructive to remember how rich Persia’s religious heritage is. Mazdaism, or early Zoroastrianism, had significant influence on successor religions.

It developed a theory of a messiah at least six centuries before Jesus Christ and probably influenced Plato. It had a common currency of ideas with Judaism from the time of the Babylonian exile, from which Cyrus the Great and his Achaemenid successors liberated the Jews – getting the Persians a much better write-up in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah than in Aeschylus.

We tend to forget that it is not just the Holy Land and the Arabian peninsula that have shaped the monotheist religious heritage. Axworthy reminds us also of Persia’s early influence on Christianity, not just its own Nestorian tradition. The Mithraic religion taken west by Roman soldiers eventually percolated into early Christian and Gnostic belief (Mithras was a subordinate deity of Ahura Mazda before Zoroastrianism settled into monotheism). If you did not know that St Augustine of Hippo was a Manichean before his conversion, this book will tell you. Axworthy is entertainingly withering about the baleful influence of both Augustine and Mani.

He also traces the long history of religious revolution in Persia. The Mazdakist movement of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, for instance, was based partly on the preaching (and practice) of free love. But nearly all these revolutionary movements were egalitarian. When Islam burst out of Arabia into a Persia exhausted by war, it found a people receptive to its levelling liberation theology that took aim at Persia’s “strongly hierarchical aristocratic and priestly system”.

Indeed, Hooman Majd, in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, underlines how many modern Iranian Shia see each other as Islamic Socialists of a sort.

Persia’s empire, Axworthy argues, was tolerant by the standards of the era. It used Aramaic as the lingua franca of Mesopotamia, Palestine and Syria, from the Achaemenids to the Parthians. It tended to rely on devolved power, except when this devolved into rival dynasties. But, above all, the Persian cultural genius lay in good part in its ability to accommodate and assimilate invaders – to conquer its conquerors.

From the era of Alexander the Great and the Seleucids, their aim of bringing Greek influence into Persia was probably outstripped by Persian influence seeping into Greek civilisation. “When Rome rose to dominate the entire Mediterranean basin, the Roman empire was divided between the Greek east and the Latin west, but still the style of the Greek east showed the influence of the vanished Achaemenid empire, and in turn influenced Romans with imperial ambitions from Pompey to Elagabulus,” writes Axworthy.

Not only the Seljuk Turks and Arabs were treated to this Persian seduction, even the Mongols succumbed. Before the fall of Baghdad in 1258, the Mongol devastations fell like a cataclysm on Persia, obliterating towns and populations, reverting swathes of the country from agriculture to nomad pastoralism for centuries to come. In Khorasan and Transoxiana perhaps a million people were slaughtered. But within decades the Persians pulled off their defining trick and conquered the conquerors.

Their architects and astrologers, their bureaucrats and viziers became indispensable to the Mongols, who eventually converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Persians and Turks had pushed into India and established an Indo-Islamic outpost of Persianate culture. This is what Axworthy means by Empire of the Mind: the way Persian scholars and poets, mathematicians and doctors kept bouncing back through crisis after crisis, using their intellectual heritage to refloat their language and their culture.

It is probably an exaggeration to suggest that the Abbasid dynasty – the high watermark of Islamic culture – was a sort of reverse takeover, the cultural reconquest of the Arab conquerors by the Persians. But it is undeniable that the towering legacy, in philosophy and medicine, of men such as the Persian Avicenna (known as Ibn Sina, 980-1037) were at the heart of this achievement. Their work, transmitted through the western jewel of Islam, al-Andalus, revitalised European scholarship to pave the way for the Renaissance.

One of the pleasures of this book is Axworthy’s sensitivity to Persia’s literary heritage, in illuminating excursions that invariably justify the detour. He has wonderful vignettes on Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and its shaping of Iranian identity (“a significance in Persian culture comparable to that of Shakespeare in English or the Lutheran Bible in German, only perhaps more so”); on Omar Khayyam (“a rugged humanism in the face of the harsh realities of life, and an impatience with easy, consoling answers, that anticipates existentialism”); on the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi or the ghazals of the 14th-century poet Hafez, rippling with wine and eroticism. He complains that every century or so, the west discovers and distorts a great Persian poet. Hafez was captured by the Romantics; Khayyam by 19th-century aesthetes; in this century, “it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery”.

Axworthy is good on the modern period, on the Safavid era (1502-1736) when warfare again exhausted and diminished Persia, and the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) when Iran became the plaything of colonial powers. By the 19th century, Iran started to be ignored, in keeping with Victorian conviction that the Orient was decadent and ripe for colonisation. This became a policy to actively hold back Persian development. Lord Salisbury, writing as foreign secretary in 1879, summed up the position: “Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” Translated, that meant, for example, no railways were built. The British and the Russians, engaged in the Great Game, did not want any means of rapid delivery for hostile armies to their borders (in Britain’s case, the western approaches to India). Ever weaker and more penniless rulers parcelled out the country in concessions and capitulations.

When the Constitutional Revolution came in 1906 – backed by many senior ayatollahs who at the time sought a new contract between rulers and ruled rather than clerical rule – it was gradually undermined by imperial intrigue. The British with their South Persia Rifles to protect “their” oilfields, the Russians through the Cossack brigade (whence emerged Reza Khan, who would use it to establish the Pahlavi dynasty of Shahs) were well placed to abort the emergence of democratic institutions, just as the French and British did elsewhere in the Middle East.

Fakhreddin Azimi’s The Quest for Democracy in Iran is particularly strong on retrieving the importance of the Constitutional Revolution and threading it through to the Islamic Republic’s current dialectic between republicanism and theocracy. He points out that “in 1953 the CIA and its British counterpart, in their zeal to overthrow the secular government of Mohammad Mossadegh, were prepared to help revive clerical oversight of parliamentary legislation in exchange for the support of leading clerics”.

It is salutary to recall that Iran’s nationalists and democrats turned hopefully to the US – even appointing in 1911 a young American, William Morgan Schuster, as de facto finance minister with wide-ranging powers to reform – in the hope of linking up with a benevolent western power that would help them resist colonialism and open a path to modernity. That story came to an end with the 1953 Anglo-American coup against Mossadegh – who had presumed to nationalise the oil industry – and the restoration of the Shah. The rest, as it were, is history.

If Axworthy’s book is history at its ripping yarn best, Hooman Majd offers a more conversational way into the history of Iran in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, with anecdote, colour and paradox splashed over a contemporary canvas. His is a genial and companionable book.

American citizen and grandson of an ayatollah, Majd is well placed to provide a privileged glimpse into Iran and Iranians. Whether asking theo-bureaucrats faux-naïve questions or smoking opium with mullahs in Qom, après-ski partying with the secular elite or discussing a dissident’s hunger-strike at the Bobby Sands burger joint in downtown Tehran, he captures the ambiguity and plurality of today’s Iran, roundly refuting the widespread notion that it is totalitarian. He depicts this “culture that is, it’s true, proud beyond the comprehension of most westerners”. He conveys brilliantly the weird mix of breast-beating and vulnerability, the superiority and inferiority complexes that inform popular and political culture. Westerners who tend to seek out only Iranians who talk and think like themselves should use this as a guide.

Majd is also superb at taking the real measure of Iran’s contemporary institutions – a bewildering blur of men in turbans to most outsiders – and at identifying the material as well as spiritual interests of, for example, the Revolutionary Guards or Pasdaran. Axworthy, too, explains well the mercantile underpinnings of the Islamic Republic, in which the bazaar, through its alliance with the politicised clerics, finally came into its kingdom (he has another vivid vignette on Ahmad Kasravi, a nationalist writer involved in the Constitutional Revolution, who penned a famous pamphlet called “What is the Religion of the Hajjis with Warehouses?”).

To be set against this is a powerful message of religious revolution – set out by shrewd, neo-Khomeinist populists such as Ahmadi-Nejad in a combative language stripped of elitism that alienates us but resonates with the Iranian and Muslim masses – which we ignore at our cost. As Azimi formulates it: “Having invoked justice as a pivotal notion almost defining its raison d’être, the Islamic regime proved singularly unsuccessful in establishing a more just and equitable society. Promising to redress this situation was at the heart of Ahmadi-Nejad’s rise.”

David Gardner is the FT’s chief leader writer and author of ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ (IB Tauris)

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